French vs. Argentine malbec: You be the judge


(Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)
Columnist May 10, 2011

At Vinexpo 2009, the wine trade bender that takes over Bordeaux for two of the hottest weeks every other summer, the expansive pavilion for Argentina was flanked by a modest counter from the home team, France, with a banner that proclaimed, “Cahors. Malbec.”

I sat at the Cahors counter and tasted the dark, inky wines from the southwest — a couple hours due east and a bit south of Bordeaux — as a parade of Argentine winemakers came by to sample “the French malbec.” It was a remarkable scene: a French wine region on the counterattack against a New World upstart that had stolen its marketing thunder by producing a wildly successful wine with the same grape whose French version had languished in obscurity.

In France, malbec has an identity crisis. It traditionally was grown in 30 provinces, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine (a.k.a. “The Great Big Book of Everything”). And it had almost as many names. The Bordelais called the grape malbec and made it a part of their traditional blend, but it fell increasingly into disfavor because it was difficult to ripen in the humid climate. In the Loire, it is known as cot but plays second fiddle to cabernet franc; in fact, maybe fourth fiddle, behind gamay and pinot noir as well. Its most hospitable ground is in Cahors, midway between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, where it traditionally was known as auxerrois, an unfortunate name that can only be pronounced properly when coughing up a hairball.

This diversity of nomenclature is no big deal for the French, who emphasize a wine’s region of origin (its terroir) over the grape variety. But the rest of the world went the other way, and malbec became known as the grape of Argentina, and the Andes foothills seen as its natural homeland.

Argentina also invested heavily in malbec and now grows more than 70 percent of the world’s production of that grape. France is a distant second, with just under 20 percent.

So the winemakers of Cahors responded to Argentina’s success by embracing “malbec” as the name of their grape and displaying it prominently on the label. They also have increasingly bottled their wines as 100 percent malbec, though the appellation laws allow some merlot and tannat in the blend. (The monovarietal trend is questionable; some of my recent favorites included merlot in the blend, and even the Argentines are beginning to appreciate what other grapes can contribute to malbec’s finesse.)

As a result of this new marketing emphasis by Cahors, we have a wine throwdown of sorts. Certainly it’s a fun way to explore wine: Buy a bottle of Cahors and one of your favorite malbecs from Argentina at a comparable price, and compare the two. They are likely to be strikingly different. Argentina tends toward a polished New World style, with new oak prominent to varying degrees and what I call “disappearing tannins,” by which I mean you can sense them in the inherent structure of the wine but you don’t necessarily feel them on your tongue and teeth.

The French expression, on the other hand, is more earthy. New oak is not as prominent (and I hope the vignerons of Cahors don’t change that). The flavors and textures are a bit more rustic and chewy, and they often get even better a day or two after the cork is pulled. Cahors somehow combines a hint of Bordeaux-like class (the Atlantic influence) with the ruggedness of warm-climate wines from the Mediterranean.

And yet both Cahors and Argentina feature malbec’s essential flavors of blueberry, cherry and plums. One style is not necessarily better than the other; they are just delightfully different. So the next time you think of a malbec with dinner, remember: They grow it in France, too.

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